One day, I was driving to university. It was 1993, but that's about all I remember. It could have been any of the four seasons, though i do recall that the day was overcast. The day itself is not important, but as I type some details are slowly coming back to me. It's weird how the human mind works like that.
Now, I should introduce you to The Dato, because she was my first love and my first car. A 1970 Datsun 1600, a column-shift automatic that would run on the smell of a oil-soaked rag (not unlike the rag shoved into my wife's mouth some 15 years later. Ironic?). The Dato was gorgeous, she had a character that no other car I have owned since has ever possessed or even come close to matching. I had owned her for a little under two years, and had been on a countless number of adventures together.
The Dato was also a bitch. You see, she had issues with the Alternator and occasionally, and completely randomly, losing power. For those of you reading this and are Australian, the NRMA Roadside Assist guys knew me on a first-name basis. I lost count of the number of times that I had to make a call to get the NRMA to come and give me a jumpstart, it also happened at the most inopportune times of course, but I kept her nonetheless.
And so it was on that overcast day in 1993. I was driving down the F5 Freeway towards my university - when suddenly, the engine completely died. I was travelling at about 110kmh (70mph for those of you stuck in an antiquated numbering system), and so I pulled over into the breakdown lane and then rolled as far as I could. My hope was to get to the next Roadside Help Point where I could call my good friends at the NRMA. When I finally came to a stop, I remember getting my NRMA Membership card out of my wallet and then putting my wallet back in my bag and putting the bag on the floor. I hate carrying a wallet, even today.
I walked to the phone, and wasn't surprised to see that it didn't work. OK, next stop would be to cross the Freeway and use the one on the other side. When I got there, that phone had been vandalised. It had no earpiece, just a cord hanging from the side of the little box.
Oh goody. What now?
I had two choices. I either walk towards the university, or towards home and use the next Roadside Help Point that I came across - at the point of the Freeway where I was standing, both potential eventual destinations (home and uni) were approximately 15km away, but the phones were every kilometer or so. I chose to walk towards home.
I crossed over the freeway once again, and went back to my car to grab my jacket. As I said, it was overcast so with the wind of cars speeding past me I wanted to keep warm during my trek along the freeway.
The walk itself was unventful, for the most part. I could see the Help Point in the distance, about 200 metres further up the road when I saw a Police Car drove past me. Then it braked braked heavily and turned around. I remember thinking that it must be my friend and neighbour, David, who was in the Highway Patrol at the time. He must have recognised me and was now coming to my aid, right?
The Police car pulled up right next to me, so I walked over to the drivers window and crouched down beside with a big smile on my face. I was fully expecting Dave to wind down the tinted window and say Gday. The problem was, it wasn't Dave.
The Policeman inside the car raised his hand in a "Stop" motion and simply said "No. Move away."
I stood up, confused, and went to walk away. As I turned, I saw a second Police Car coming towards me at high speed. He stopped between me and the phone, got out of his car, and said "Don't Move. Please just stay where you are."
I backed right away, into the grass area that ran alongside the Freeway. The first Policeman got out of his car and walked over to the second guy. They spoke for about two minutes, at one point a third Police car arrived. This one drove past the first two and parked on the side of the road, effectively blocking me in from running in any direction (not that I was going to, but still...) The driver of the third car also stayed in the vehicle - to this day, I don't know if the driver was a man or a woman.
I called out to the two Policemen that were "chatting". The second one responded by saying "Please just stay where you are, we will be with you in just one moment."
Ok. No problem. With three armed Policemen surrounding me, I wasn't going to move a muscle.
Minutes passed. I remember seeing a Volvo pull up a couple of hundred metres down the Freeway, obviously an on-looker that wanted to see the action. I also remember another vehicle had pulled up very close to the Police cars, this one turned out to be an unmarked Police car. The driver got out and walked to the two chatting Policemen. I clearly heard him say "I'm from Liverpool Fingerprints, I called it in. I think he's the one we're after."
The three of them - the two uniformed Policemen and the guy from "Liverpool Fingerprints" -spoke together for about another five minutes, but it felt so much longer. All the while, I stood by the side of the road wondering what had happened for them to think I am the one they're after.
Finally, the second Policeman came over to me. He introduced himself, but I can't remember his name anymore. I do remember that he asked me for ID, but I said it was in my car. He looked down the Freeway, saw the Volvo I mentioned earlier, and asked me if that was my car. I laughed and said "No, that's someone that has just pulled over to watch what's going on. My car is further down, around the bend."
I asked him if it was okay for me to take my NRMA Membership card out of my pocket. He said it was, and I explained that I was just walking up to the Help Point to call for breakdown assistance. He asked me a few more details such as my name, dob, address, etc. He wrote everything down, then told me he would radio it in to cross-check the information. If it all checked out, he would take me to the telephone to make the call to NRMA, then take me to my car so I could show him my drivers license.
Once again, he left me and returned to his car. My head was absolutely spinning with thoughts of possibilities. I mean, obviously this was a case of mistaken identity. But, what if I couldn't prove it? The details I gave him would check out as being correct, of course. But, what if they had proof that I done whatever it is they think I had done? What if my car is no longer sitting by the side of the Freeway, thereby negating my whole story up until this point?
He came back over to me and asked me to follow him to his car. He then explained to me once again that he would drive me to the Help Point, then to my car, and that once we got there he wanted me to get my drivers license out and show it to him.
Sure, no problem.
We got in his car and drove to the Help Point. My heart was absolutely pounding by this point, but I made the call and then got back in the Police car for the final time. We were followed by another Police car, driven by the first Policeman on the scene. The third Police car - with the unknown driver - and the guy from Liverpool Fingerprints had both left the scene while I was making my call for roadside assistance.
We drove the kilometer or so down the Freeway to my car. I remember asking him what this was all about, but he responded by saying "Let's just take a look at your drivers license first."
We rounded the bend, and there was my car. Thankfully, still there. I seriously had visions of someone - probably the guy they were really looking for - had broken into my car, hot-wired it, and then driven away.
Before I got out of the Police car, I told him my wallet was in my bag on the floor in the front. We both got out of the car at the same time, his car was parked behind mine so when he got out he stood behind the drivers door. The other Police car that followed us was parked in front of my car, the driver got out and was standing behind his open drivers door. In other words, they were both using the door as protection against me.
I walked to my car, grabbed my bag and then placed it on the roof. If these two thought I was carrying a weapon, I wanted to make sure that I got my wallet out in plain sight.
Wallet in-hand, I returned my bag to the car and then removed my drivers license. The Policeman that drove me called out and told me to bring it to him.
I did, and he looked at it just briefly before returning it to me and saying "Ok, sorry for all the hassle Paul. Please have a nice day."
NO WAY. UH-UH.
"Have a nice day?" I said. "How can I have a nice day? Can you please tell me what is going on?"
The Policeman said to me that there was an armed holdup just off the freeway. The assailant was described as being:
Early to Mid-20s (check)
195cm/6'5" tall (check)
Brown hair (check)
Wearing a black T-shirt (check)
Black jeans (check)
Baseball cap (check)
THE only difference between me and the guy they were looking for - other than the fact that it wasn't me - was that I was wearing a blue jacket.